President Joe Biden said he will meet next week with the group of Senate Republicans seeking a deal on comprehensive infrastructure legislation.
Biden told reporters he spoke briefly with Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, the West Virginia Republican who is leading the group of six Republicans after the group on Thursday unveiled a $928 billion counteroffer to Biden’s most recent offer to cut $550 billion from his $2.25 trillion plan.
Capito, the ranking Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, confirmed the meeting plan, saying the two had a “very positive” but brief conversation Thursday. “He didn’t make any commitments to the substance” of the group’s offer, she said. “But he wants to continue working.”
“I got clear direction from him, so that’s good,” she said. “Keep moving forward.”
White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the administration found it “encouraging” that the group had increased its funding levels, praising the proposals to add money on roads, bridges and rail.
But she said the White House remains “concerned” that the GOP plan does not have enough money for veterans hospitals, building modern rail systems, repairing transit systems or removing lead pipes.
“Lastly, we are concerned that the proposal on how to pay for the plan remains unclear,” she said. “We are worried that major cuts in COVID relief funds could imperil pending aid to small businesses, restaurants and rural hospitals using this money to get back on their feet after the crush of the pandemic.”
The Republican group, composed of ranking members of relevant infrastructure-related committees, made the offer after being disappointed by a meeting last Friday with White House officials at which the White House offered a $1.7 trillion plan that Republicans said was too costly.
The new GOP proposal, which the White House says is about $257 billion above baseline — the amount the government would normally spend to sustain the current state of federal infrastructure — eliminates the White House proposal to spend $400 billion for home and community-based care for elder Americans and the disabled and does not include money Biden proposed for manufacturing assistance.
Instead, it increases the GOP’s original offer on roads and bridges from $299 billion to $506 billion, adding $4 billion for electric vehicle infrastructure, $14 billion for resilience and $800 million to tear down bridges and other infrastructure that divided Black communities.
The plan, which goes from a five-year plan to an eight-year one in an effort to be consistent with the White House framework, would increase public transit spending from $61 billion over five years in the original offer to $98 billion over eight, increase money for passenger and freight rail from $20 billion to $46 billion and increase funding for safety programs from $13 billion to $21 billion.
Ports and waterways would receive $22 billion, as opposed to the $17 billion Senate Republicans originally called for, and western water storage would receive $22 billion, rather than the original $14 billion proposed. Drinking and wastewater would receive $72 billion, rather than the original $35 billion, while airports would receive $56 billion, rather than the originally proposed $44 billion. Broadband, which would receive $65 billion, would remain unchanged from the original proposal.
In a memo to Biden, the group said its latest offer adds $91 billion over baseline spending for roads and bridges and $48 billion over baseline for water infrastructure. It also includes a one-time infusion of $25 billion for airports and $65 billion for broadband, a $22 billion increase over baseline for passenger and rail and $6 billion over baseline for water storage.
The group warned that passing the package through a partisan reconciliation process “would undermine the good work we have done, and can continue to do, in a bipartisan manner.”
They wrote that they’ve been “explicit” that “policies unrelated to physical infrastructure do not fit in this package.”
“This is not because we do not value these important issues,” they wrote. “We simply believe that these policies should be addressed in separate legislation that does not dilute our shared objective of passing this package.”
After three meetings between the Biden administration and the Senate GOP group, the two sides remain at a standoff over the cost and scope of the infrastructure package.
Republicans argue that money for schools, veterans hospitals and elder care should not be included in the package, with Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, the ranking Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, describing some of those items as “socialism camouflaged as infrastructure.”
Instead, they argue, the package should focus on roads, bridges, waterways and broadband.
The Republicans contend that unspent money from Biden’s COVID-19 relief bill (PL 117-2) could pay for the bulk of the spending, with Sen. Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania, the ranking Republican on the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, estimating about $700 billion would be available in unspent pandemic relief dollars from that package alone.
He said some $355 billion already will be available through the gas-tax funded Highway Trust Fund, which leaves a shortfall of about $575 billion. The unspent relief dollars, he said, would more than make up the difference.
“We believe that repurposing these funds needs to be a really important part of how we fill this gap,” he said.
The GOP group also includes Sens. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, ranking Republican on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, Sen. Roy Blunt Missouri, the Senate Republican Policy chairman, and Michael D. Crapo of Idaho, ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee.
Republicans have also consistently said they are unwilling to reverse some of the 2017 tax cuts, as Biden has called for in order to pay for the package. They argue that repurposing unspent dollars would be a viable way to pay for legitimate needs without driving up the deficit further.
“We spent a year of guessing, and, frankly, I think the Congress guessed pretty well,” Blunt said, saying programs like the Paycheck Protection Plan worked well, while others, such as loans for companies with more than 400 employees, “worked barely at all.”
“It’s better to use that money for something we all want to do than have it sit around there for somebody else’s pet project at some time in the future.”
Democrats were lukewarm on the idea of repurposing relief money, with Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia saying that the GOP proposal demonstrates that Republicans are reluctant to find pay-fors.
“That’s holding down the Republican proposal’s topline, because they don’t want to come up with revenue,” he said.
Kaine said the group should take its time reaching a deal.
“I’m not feeling like, ‘Oh, you know, it’s dragging too long,’” he said. “I never thought we were going to have an infrastructure bill until July at the earliest … and I think we’re on track to do that.”
Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.